Everyone thinks that just because I was trained as a professional pastry baker, worked in a host of bakeries, was a caterer for close to 20 years, and write about baking, that when I want to make a little something sweet I spend all day in the kitchen. I am visualized with all sorts of magnificent creations of multiple layers, daring icings, the gelato machine whirling, caramelized sugar, creating ribbons of chocolate peeling off pieces of vinyl floormat, and zillions of homemade cookies.
I confess. I have all sorts of “secret” shortcuts to creating unbelievably delicious and beautiful desserts.
My philosophy is not one of functioning like I am in a production kitchen every day, but one of simplicity and utilizing modern conveniences. I want desserts that appeal to all the senses, especially TASTING even better than they look. Yes, I love to bake, but yes I also love commercial cake mixes. I love ready-made angel food cake. And yes, I love being in and out of the kitchen in as short a time as possible, yet show up at a gathering with something people really want to eat, or have a rather delectable dinner party dessert for friends.
So here are my top five secret weapons for the assembly of a luscious homey dessert. None are difficult to prepare. The reality is they are quite ordinary. What you need is a dash of organization, a few pieces of equipment, using components you probably already have on hand in the freezer or pantry, and just plain taking the time. I hope you get as much enjoyment and satisfaction out of these favorites as I do.
1• Commercial cake mixes. I love Duncan Hines yellow and devil’s food cake mixes and love even more to buy them on sale for 50 cents a box. They make fabulous tube cakes and people always ask for the recipes. These are great recipes for spur of the moment baking needs. I mix the yellow cake with a package of cornbread mix and created the most light cake similar to amor polenta, the Italian cornmeal butter cake. The gold cake makes a superior cinnamon-swirled coffee cake. And the chocolate devil’s food cake mix makes my famous Mexican Chocolate Cake (recipe below). As I was developing as a baker, I went through a phase of only making every single cake from scratch. I don’t want to discourage that since that is how you will expand your repertoire and technique as a serious baker, but one day my teenage little sister made a gold layer cake with chocolate frosting and placed it on mom’s gorgeous petal cake plate. It was divine. It was also Duncan Hines. I was in shock. It was delicious. Betty Crocker now carries a line of gluten free cake mixes.
My Infamous Mexican Chocolate Cake
1 package (18 1/4-ounces) devils food cake mix
1 package (3 1/2-ounce) instant chocolate pudding mix
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup vegetable or light olive oil
1/3 cup Kahula coffee liqueur
1/4 cup hot water
Zest of 2 fresh oranges
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
4 large eggs
One 12-ounce package semi-sweet dark or white chocolate chips
1. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan or fluted tube mold; set aside. Preheat the oven to 350º.
2. In a bowl using an electric mixer on low speed, combine the dry cake mix, dry pudding mix, sour cream, oil, Kahlua, water, zest, cinnamon, and eggs one at a time. Beat on medium-high speed 3 minutes, scraping the bowl often. The batter will be smooth and creamy. Add the chocolate chips and beat until just evenly distributed.
3. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake in the center of the preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when touched lightly. Cool on a wire rack about 1 hour before turning out of pan. Makes one 10-inch tube cake.
2• Commercial brownie mix. This is just one of the secrets of the universe how you can make brownies from a mix and it seem like homemade. I had dinner at a friend’s house and she served brownies for dessert. One bite and I had to have the recipe for the flavor and texture were perfect. Oh geeze, she smiled, it was the box of Safeway house brand. I couldn’t believe it. My favorite brand now is made by Ghirardelli.
I like to “jazz” up the mix with pecans or macadamia nuts, a liqueur for the liquid, or cut into individual squares and place in those silver foil muffin cup liners and top with a patted dry canned mandarin orange piece (you want to use some of the drained orange liquid in the recipe). For adults, toss some prunes with a tablespoon or two of Armagnac or some dried cherries with Cherry Marnier and let stand at room temperature an hour or so; fold them into batter. I also like to add Bailey’s Irish Cream or Kahlua liqueur in place of the 1/3 cup water, or for a mint brownie, add 3 tablespoons Vandermint liqueur for the same amount of water.
Never underestimate a brownie sundae: a square of brownie, a scoop of vanilla, chocolate, or coffee ice cream, warm goopy chocolate sauce or caramel sauce, whipped cream (go ahead and use from the can), and toasted nuts or a maraschino cherry on top. Don’t make the sundaes too big; a 3-inch square piece of brownie and a small scoop of ice cream is plenty.
3• Ready made angel food cake. Here is a place for an epiphany. Once I went to a girlfriend’s house for dinner. Dessert was an angel food cake from the local supermarket bakery. She slathered the whole surface with thick homemade blackberry preserves, then coated it with whipped cream. “Oh, I will pass on this one,” I thought. “Probably too sweet. And gee, a bought cake.” Well, I literally ate my words. All the guests had seconds and that is a memory at least 20 years old at this writing. The cake can also be cut into three layers, sandwiched with fresh or frozen thawed berries, and frosted with a cream cheese-whipped cream. If you are really pressed for time, just serve fruit (anything from fresh peaches to plums to oranges sprinkled with a bit of Grand Marnier) with white chocolate whipped cream on the side (melt a small bar of white chocolate with a pint of cream and splash of vanilla; cover and chill, then whip it up). Outstanding for birthdays and magical looking with a ring of whole strawberries around the top.
A reader sent in her secret weapon: boxed angel food cake made into two 9-inch bar loaf cakes for easy slicing. “For less than three dollars, 1 1/4 cups of water, 1 1/2 minutes mixing time, and about 45 minutes baking time, you can have two 9 inch bars of angel food cake and there’s so much to be done with them,” she wrote. “I freeze one and have it ready for a quick dessert. With the berry season just starting, it’s ready for fruit, whipped cream or frozen topping, and anything else your heart desires. And it’s fat free!!!
Cream Cheese Whipped Cream Frosting
- 1 1/2 cups chilled heavy cream
- 1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
- 3/4 to 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a chilled bowl with an electric mixer, whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form. Remove to another bowl and set aside. Without washing the bowl, switch to the paddle attachment and whip the cream cheese, sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy. On low speed, fold in the whipped cream. Makes enough to frost one 9-inch angel food cake.
4•Sorbet with raspberry coulis and cookies. I used to make all my own sorbets from scratch for catering. Then came the sorbet renaissance. There are the most lip-smacking, outrageous sorbets in the freezer section. People on all sorts of special diets will eat sorbet.
From Dreyer’s and Hagen Daz there are flavors like mandarin orange with passion fruit, blueberry, coconut, peach, and of course, mango. Seattle Sorbet offers really unique flavors such as Tequila Lime and Blackberry Cabernet. Cremeux celebrates the bounty of California crops with flavors like apricot, blackberry, Charentais melon, Kadota fig, nectarine, and white raspberry. They feature a different nut for each season: pistachios in the spring, almonds in summer, walnuts in fall, and hazelnuts in winter, plus vanilla and chocolate and coffee. During March and April, when there is a lull in California fruit production, they use tropical fruits like mango and papaya. I have even seen some artisan brands made with fresh flower petals. The secret here is the serving bowl. I use margarita glasses on a salad plate with a gold or silver dollie to keep it from slipping. Anything with a stem looks smashing, just not too fragile since you are using a spoon. Use a small ice cream scoop and have 3 complementary, yet visually different, kinds of sorbet.
Mix and match. Make a raspberry coulis from a bag of frozen unsweetened raspberries, the baker’s secret sauce to make everything special. Then top with some whole fresh berries (raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, or strawberries), toasted nuts, or crushed crystallized ginger. I serve a little plain cookie on the side, like Walker’s shortbread fingers or a real coconut macaroon, or a homemade slice-and-bake cookie dough out of my freezer. Your no-fat food friends will worship you.
A coulis (pronounced koo-LEE), is a French term for a barely sweetened fruit purée that is used as a sauce. You can make double or triple the amount of raspberry sauce and keep it in the freezer for impromptu serving on ice cream, sorbet, cheesecake, poundcake, you name it. This recipe works perfectly with strawberries and blackberries as well.
- 3 half pint baskets fresh raspberries, washed, or 3 cups frozen unsweetened raspberries (about 1 pound 2 ounces)
- 1/2 cup sugar, to taste
- 3 tablespoons orange juice, Grand Marnier or berry liqueur
Place the berries in a bowl and sprinkle with the sugar. Let stand at room temperature on the counter at least 1 hour to macerate; if the berries are frozen, just let them set until they defrost. Add the juice and push through a wire sieve to remove the seeds and purée. Pour into a storage container or bowl. Store, covered, in the refrigerator until serving or up to 3 days. Serve chilled. Makes about 2 1/2 cups. Store in the freezer 3 months.
5• Fruit Crisp: Seasonal fruit piled into a baking dish, cover with a crumbly top and bake. Voila. Instant culinary nirvana.When I was baking at St. Mike’s, we made this almost every single day. Barbara Hiken brought in the recipe. When we came in the next morning, usually there was nothing left but an empty unwashed dish. When Barbara was cooking for private clients years later, she would adapt the recipe to make individual crisps for one.
St. Michael’s Alley Apple Crisp
2 1/2 to 3 pounds (6 to 9 large) tart cooking apples, peeled, cored, quartered, and sliced 3/4-inch thick
1/2 cup unsweetened unfiltered apple juice
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1. Preheat the oven to 375º (350º if using Pyrex). Place the sliced apples in an even layer into a shallow, unbuttered 9-by-13-inch baking dish or 2-quart casserole dish. Pour over the apple juice.
2. Place the flour, sugar, and cinnamon in a bowl. Cut in the butter pieces with your fingers, a pastry blender, or pulse in a food processor until the mixture just holds together and looks crumbly. (Can be made the day ahead and refrigerated in a covered container.)
3. Sprinkle the fruit evenly with all of the topping. Bake in the center of the oven until the topping is golden and the fruit is bubbling and tender, about 45 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Individual Apple Crisp
Serves 1 or 2
1 large tart cooking apple, peeled, cored, quartered, and sliced 3/4-inch thick
2 teaspoons water
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
Divide the apple between one or two 6-ounce ceramic ramekins, souffle dishes, or custard cups, sprinkle with crumbs, and bake 375º, 20 to 24 minutes, on a baking sheet to catch the drips.
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2013
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.